Can you imagine 2011 Rob Gronkowski in this Bengals offense? At just 22-years of age, Gronk set an NFL record with 17 touchdown receptions as a tight end, the tip of the spear in a New England Patriots offense that also included peak Tom Brady and Wes Welker. Brady threw 39 touchdown passes that season. Put Gronk on the 2023 Bengals, and how many TDs does Joe Burrow throw? 45? 50? Does he approach Peyton Manning’s record of 55?
It’s a silly thought. 2011 Gronk is not walking into Paycor Stadium. 2023 Gronk could, in theory, be in play, but he seems pretty happy hanging out on the PGA Tour and taking his supermodel girlfriend out for gas station food. With Hayden Hurst no longer in the picture, the Bengals are going to have to look elsewhere for an upgrade at tight end.
The tight end free-agent market is uninspiring. Foster Moreau, former Las Vegas Raider and teammate of Burrow at LSU, was an intriguing option, but after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Moreau is understandably taking some time away from the game. Dalton Schultz was widely considered the top available TE, but he just signed with the Houston Texans. That leaves…Irv Smith? Dan Arnold? Should the Bengals run it back with Tyler Kroft?
Like I said, uninspiring. The draft, though, is a better bet. Not only are there some players in this draft class with serious potential, but the cost-controlled nature of rookie salaries would pair nicely with the still-to-be-determined Burrow and Tee Higgins extensions. There are several tight ends who could make sense at pick #28, but one player stands out from the rest of the field: Michael Mayer of Notre Dame.
A quick look at any scouting report will tell you that Mayer has a lot to offer an NFL team. He’s skilled and productive. He’s got the right size and strength for the position, and he puts his body to good use as a run blocker. He has good hands and a natural ability to catch the ball away from his body. He’s dependable, instinctive, and very physical – and he’s arguably the greatest tight end ever produced by Notre Dame (and given former Bengal Tyler Eiffert was also a Golden Domer, that’s saying something).
He’s not a perfect prospect by any means. No one is going to mistake him for Gronk anytime soon, even if he runs with a similar level of intensity (and he did earn the nickname “Baby Gronk” while playing for the Irish). He’s not an uber-athlete. If you want superhuman traits, Georgia’s Darnell Washington is your man. Arguably, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid is a better pure receiver than Mayer, too. But what Mayer brings to the table that Washington and Kincaid can’t is the full package.
Mayer is the best of both worlds. He can step into the Bengals lineup tomorrow and be a positive in the run and pass game. He might not have Washington’s athleticism or size, but he’s far more reliable as a receiver. Kincaid is faster, but blocking is a weakness to his game – not for Mayer. No tight end has more tools, and no tight end is more NFL ready.
Alright, so Mayer probably won’t be Gronk, but imagine adding Baby Gronk to the 2023 Bengals. Appealing, right? With Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase on the outside, and Tyler Boyd drawing attention in the middle areas of the field, Mayer could feast. And while his receiving skills will get most of the attention, it’s his blocking that will make the biggest difference for the Bengals.
Recall this past season: the Bengals had one of the best passing games (7th in the NFL in passing yards in only 16 games), but the running game was dreadful (29th in rushing yards). Why? Well, for one thing, the blocking wasn’t great. But objectively, it was better than in 2021. Considering they added four new starters to the offensive line at the start of the 2022 season, that’s not a particularly controversial statement. Strangely though, the 2021 Bengals outgained the 2022 Bengals in rushing yards, yards per carry, and rushing TDs. How could this be?
I think C.J. Uzomah’s absence was felt a lot more than most people realize – in the run game, though, not the passing game. See, Uzomah, in his days in Cincinnati, was never much of a threat as a pass catcher. Sure, he was an athletic specimen, but his role was primarily blocking – at least, until 2021. Given the opportunity to be the top TE, Uzomah burst onto the scene with career-bests in receiving yards and touchdowns and parlayed that into a sumptuous contract with the New York Jets.
The Bengals brought in Hurst as a replacement, and while he and Uzomah were more or less a wash in the receiving department, it’s in the blocking department where Uzomah really made his mark, and where his absence was felt the most. A hulking figure at 6-6, 260 lbs., Uzomah was a mover in the run game. Hurst was willing, but willing won’t cut it when lining up across Myles Garrett or T.J. Watt. The 2022 Bengals struggled all year to run the football, and especially when they tried to run it while under center. Insert Mayer into the 2023 Bengals, and suddenly these issues look a lot less pressing.
None of the other tight end prospects in the draft offer such a complete skill set from jump street. Kincaid flashes a lot of potential in the pass game, but no matter who ends up starting at tight end, they’ll be the third or fourth option at best. I like Kincaid, but selecting such a one-dimensional player in the first round feels like a reach. Washington, on the other hand, could have more potential that Kincaid and Mayer put together, but the Bengals need someone to contribute right away. For all of his athletic gifts, Washington is probably looking at a C.J. Uzomah-like career trajectory.
Mayer just makes too much sense. Could I be overrating the “local kid” element too much (Mayer went to Covington Catholic in Park Hills, Kentucky)? Absolutely. But frankly, I love that piece. Sam Hubbard is a local guy. So was Kevin Huber. Burrow is a southern Ohio guy too. These guys are proud to be Cincinnati Bengals, and that matters. Mayer would fit right in.
If I’m the Bengals, and Mayer is sitting there at #28, I’m not hesitating. I’m not listening to any trade offers. I’m handing that pick in as quickly as humanly possible. Heck, I’d even consider trading up – for a reasonable price, of course. Mayer could make that much of a difference. The 2023 Bengals don’t need more stars (Burrow, Chase, and Higgins have that covered), they need players that can excel in their roles and make a difference on the margins. Mayer is that player. Let’s bring him home.